Married to her real estate career instead, the only thought on her mind is selling a top listed house in San Francisco so she can finally afford the home of her dreams.
Unfortunately, fate decides otherwise.
After her wealthiest client fires her, Helen’s vision of moving away from her cramped apartment and the person stealing her parking space vanishes and leaving her professional life as pathetic as her love life.
When her best friend, Lisa, informs her that she’s getting married in Bora Bora, Helen packs her bags for a much-needed vacation and boards a plane with the excitement of leaving all her Mr. Wrongs behind.
A new practice and a new place to live, those are the only two things that veterinarian Rick Stark needs after finding out his fiancé cheated on him. With his trust in women shattered, he jumps at the chance for the perfect job, leaving San Francisco in the dust.
However, while visiting his possible new boss on the islands of Bora Bora, he finds himself in the company of a familiar face—the attractive owner of a patient who he once thought he wasn’t interested in.
Could it be that maybe he was wrong about her? And if so, what’s he supposed to do when her old flame falls into the picture wanting to rekindle what they once had?
I scooped my bridal bouquet in my arms, holding it in front of me as I admired my reflection in the full-length mirror.
Perfect. Just perfect.
With a burst, the door flung open behind me and Lisa rushed inside the little church dressing room. Her lungs heaved and her skin flushed with blotchy pink spots as she slammed the door shut.
“Lisa?” I spun on my heel to face her. “What’s wrong?”
Mascara stained under her red and puffy eyes as though she’d been crying, and she threw her bouquet down on the sitting chair, growling under her breath.
“He’s gone, Helen.”
“Ben? Ben’s gone? What happened between you two?”
“No. No. Not Ben.” Her chocolate curls bounced as she shook her head. “Tom is gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?”
Her eyes fiercely burned into the floor. I’d seen this type of hesitation in her countless times before when an answer she didn’t want to utter sat upon the tip of her tongue.
My bouquet plummeted to the ground. A few of the perfect white rose petals broke off the buds and scattered onto the carpet. My lungs struggled to breathe. My stomach twisted into knots.
Ask any girl at the age of ten if they’ve envisioned their wedding and more than likely, you will get the answer of yes. At least, if you had asked me, you would have. I knew what I wanted from the dress to the veil, from the flowers to the candles, and from the food to the music, although admittedly, growing up through the 80’s and 90’s, my styles had changed.
Yes, I’d known every detail for the first thirty years of my life.
Every one of them except the detail of a missing fiancé.
“Did he . . . did he say anything to anyone or leave a note? Did he tell Ben why he . . .” I stepped backwards away from my best friend, unable to finish my sentence.
A knock rapped on the door. We both flinched and faced the white wood.
“Come in.” My voice raised an octave.
The door cracked open and my mother squeezed through the frame. Not one for flashy colors or the latest trends in fashion, the plainness in her tan tweed dress nearly looked invisible against her pale skin. She shut the door with a slight thud, heaving a deep sigh as she rolled her eyes.
“My cousin Lily is outside. Lord only knows what that woman will do if she knows you’re in here. She’ll probably barge in, announcing to the world you’re here for everyone to come see.” Mom made her way over to my mirror, but upon catching sight of my reflection, her smile vanished, leaving an odd crinkle formed in her forehead. “Am I interrupting something?”
“Mom, have you seen Tom?”
“No, I haven’t. That would have been your father’s job if the bastard would have shown up.” Mom rested both of her hands on her hips. “Why do you ask?”
“Because apparently, Tom’s gone,” I answered flatly.
“Oh, I bet he’s a just ball of nerves and needed to take a walk. He’ll be back.” Mom waved off my words and faced the mirror, examining her makeup. She groaned as she yanked a tissue from the box on the table next to the mirror and dabbed at her face. “I told that stupid girl she was putting on way too much eye shadow. I can’t stand having all this gunk on my face. I swear I look like ten cents a dance.”
I rubbed the back of my neck with my fingers. My own breathing sped up as the walls of the room drew closer and closer, spinning around me. My cheeks flushed, warming along my forehead as I brushed my fingertips against my skin and then fanned my face with my hand.
Tom, a bundle of nerves?
No, no, that wasn’t Tom. Nervous never fit with his too cool to care persona twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
He wouldn’t lose his mind over missing cufflinks. He wouldn’t bat at eye at an ill-fitting tuxedo. He couldn’t care less if the church played the wrong music, or if the florist made his boutonniere with the wrong color or the wrong flower
He also wouldn’t be pacing the floor in anticipation over the fact that in mere moments, I would walk down the aisle and become his wife.
Surely, he got angry from time to time. Our history of fighting proved that. However, scared? Anxious? Never. His thoughts never wavered when it came to what he wanted in life.
His determination was unlike any I’d ever known.
“Maybe he’s in the parking lot with Sam.” Mom tugged on the tweed material of her dress and smoothed her waistline before twisting her body to inspect her derriere.
“I mean,” she continued. “You’re always complaining about how much of a bad influence his rotten best man is, maybe they’re out there drinking a beer and talking about how he can’t wait for all these proper shenanigans to be over.”
My eyes locked on Lisa’s, noticing the sadness in the brown hue. She bit her lip and shook her head.
My nightmare slowly caved in on me.
I lunged for the door, shoving past my Maid of Honor as I exited. My dress train dragged the carpet after me, a bunched up mess of lace and satin. Tears burned my eyes as Mom called after me.
“Don’t let Lily see you or she’ll announce it to the whole world.”
People mingled in the foyer of the church, either chatting with family members and friends they hadn’t seen in a while or standing in line to etch their names in our guest book.
Their laughter and loud banter echoed in my ears, and yet, the volume sounded muffled, rendering them inaudible against the beat of my pulse deafening me.
Faces blurred together. Children ran around, the boys chased the girls, whether to play a game of tag or to torture them for no reason. The pint-size brutes either pulled on their pigtails or made fun of their bows, sending them all scattering, screaming, and fleeing to their mothers for safety. Just more stupid games males play on females, even at a young age.
Everyone dressed in their Sunday best—suits and dresses in all shades of color and styles. Each person ignorant and blind to the fact they would soon share in my shock and heartbreak.
Sneaking along the hallway, I found the men’s dressing room. Without a second thought, I twisted the brass doorknob and shoved it open, just as Lisa had done to mine.
The wooden door banged against the inside wall. Ben leapt from one of the chairs. Startled with wide eyes, beads of sweat moistened his brow and pale face. With a flick of his wrist, he yanked a handkerchief from his tuxedo jacket’s pocket and dabbed it against his forehead.
Sam paced back and forth on the other side of the room. He spun around to face me, raising his hands in the air as though he intended to place them on my shoulders in order to calm me.
“Helen, I can explain.”
“You can explain?” Anger boiled through my blood. “How dare you even speak to me after—”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Don’t lie to me. You’ve never wanted him to be with me, never. Not when we were dating, and certainly not, after he proposed. You’ve never liked me, although I have no idea why, I’ve never done anything to you.”
“That’s not true.”
“That’s not true? What have I ever done to you?”
“No, no, I meant, it’s not true that I never wanted him to be with you.”
“Yes, it is. You’ve always wanted us to split up. Why, I don’t know. Even though we were together, you guys still got to hit every bar in San Francisco. I never kept him from your drunken nights or raging parties.” By the time I’d finished my rant, I stood inches from Sam with my finger pointed in his face. “This is all your fault. What did you say to him?”
“I didn’t say anything to him.”
“He really didn’t.” Ben raised his own hands as though to stop me from advancing toward him. “He even tried to talk him out of it. Really, he did, Helen, but you know how Tom can get. Once he gets an idea in his head, there’s no stopping him.”
Lisa darted through the doorway, exchanging glances with Ben. Her brow crinkled with worry, she heaved a deep sigh.
“A few of the guests saw you and they are starting to wonder if something is going on,” she said. “Your mom is trying to get them all seated, but she’s freaked out, too.”
“Talk him out of what?” I asked Sam, ignoring Lisa’s warning. “You mean out of destroying me on our wedding day by leaving me without even a word? Why did he do this? Why did he leave?”
Sam grabbed the bridge of his wide nose, closed his deep brown eyes, and exhaled a deep breath. “He wasn’t happy, Helen. He just wasn’t happy.”
“Why? What did I do that was so wrong? What the heck did I do wrong?”
Lisa grabbed my shoulders, squeezing them tight in her fingers. “Oh, sweetie, you didn’t do anything wrong. Tom is just a jerk, that’s all. He’s a jerk who doesn’t deserve you.”
I gazed down upon my engagement ring. On the wrong hand and finger for the ceremony, the diamonds set in the platinum setting now sparkled less. Tarnished with a mix of hate and agony, each fragment of color tortured me.
“If he wasn’t happy, why did he buy me this?”
Unable to look at it anymore, I wiggled the ring off my finger, holding it in between my index and thumb fingertips for a moment before dropping it to the ground. It bounced a few times on the light grey carpet before it came to rest near the toe of my shoe.
“If he wasn’t happy,” I continued, “he should have said so before today. Before I spent my time planning this wedding that, I drained my savings account to pay for. Before I shopped for my wedding dress. Heck, even before I left the apartment this morning to have my hair and makeup done.”
Hopes and dreams, my whole future vanished before my eyes and obscured into a version I didn’t know—a happy home now gone, thoughts of future children celebrating birthdays, Christmases, the first day of school each year now gone. Family vacations and building memories to last a lifetime now gone. Images of us growing old together while watching our grandchildren play now gone.
All the pictures of a life I’d envisioned in the last year shattered as if smashed with a hammer and the pieces rained down upon me as I stood in the church in my wedding dress.
A dress that would never walk down the aisle.
A dress that would never dance at the reception.
A dress that I would never save for my future daughter.
Instead, this dress would stand before all of my family and friends as they heard that Tom had changed his mind. That he didn’t want to marry me and that I’d wasted not only two years of my life and thousands of dollars, but that I’d thought foolishly when I thought of him as my soulmate and someone who I’d spend the rest of my life with.
Tears streamed down my cheeks. I buried my face in my hands as Lisa wrapped her other arm around my shoulders and hugged me tight.
“Is that all he said, Sam, just that he wasn’t happy?” Lisa’s voice vibrated through my ear. Her words muffled.
“Perhaps now isn’t the time for details,” Ben hinted. “Why don’t you take the limo and take Helen back to our place. I’ll take care of the guests, let them know that . . . well, that they won’t be celebrating a wedding this afternoon.”
“They might as well eat and enjoy themselves at the reception hall.” My voice cracked as I pulled away from Lisa and wiped my tear streaked face. “I mean, it’s all paid for. It shouldn’t just go to waste.”
“Why don’t we let the guests worry about that and figure out what they want to do?” She released me and grasped my hand. “I’ll get you in the limo and return for your stuff.”
She opened the door and stuck her head out to check if anyone lingered in the hallway. Her body stiffened as she craned her neck from side to side and tugged me through the back of the church and out the side door.
Salty San Francisco air filled my lungs as the sunlight blinded me, piercing through the headache beginning to pound in my head. Birds chirped in the trees lining the church—their wings fluttered from branch to branch as they soaked in early afternoon hours, oblivious to the human world around them.
How lucky of them.
My shoes clicked against the blacktop of the parking lot as I marched for the limo, ducking my chin and lifting my hand to shield my face from the array of church windows. Whether people watched me from them, I didn’t know.
Lisa scurried behind me, scooping up my train in her arms. “It’s going to get dirty.”
“So what if it does?”
“Well, maybe down the road you can wear it again.”
I gave her a sideways glance with one eyebrow raised as I growled.
“Okay, fine. Maybe you could sell it, then.”
The hired limo driver leaned against the passenger door with a magazine in his hand. He glanced up from flipping through the pages and jumped, hiding his entertainment behind his back as he nodded toward us.
“Good afternoon, ladies.”
“We need to leave, now.” Lisa snapped her fingers at him.
He leapt to attention and grabbed the handle, swinging the door open with a force that rocked the stretched vehicle.
“Ma’am.” He tipped his hat as I climbed in.
“I’ll be right back with her bags. Wait for me and don’t let anyone else know she’s in there or get in with her.”
The driver nodded to Lisa’s demand and stood at attention as she trotted back to the building. His silhouette blocked some of the sunlight from shining through the tinted windows.
My rump scooted across the seat and the crinkled noise from my dress rubbing against the leather echoed in the silence of the empty cab.
I slipped off my shoes and kicked them to the side, stubbing my toe on the ice bucket in the corner. The top of the Cristal champagne bottle that I had special ordered poked out of the cold cubes of frozen water. Its gold-foiled label glinted with one of the few rays of sunlight that peaked through the dark tint.
A token for celebration, and yet, I had nothing to celebrate.
I grabbed the neck of the bottle and yanked it out of the bucket. Water dripped from the thick green glass as my fingers traced over the lettering.
Just another expense I paid for that would go to waste.
Or would it?
I ripped at the gold foil, peeling it away from the bottle until I exposed the cork. I untwisted the tiny wires then wiggled the cork until finally . . .
The sound burst through my chest. Bubbles oozed out, spilling all over the carpet of the limo. I stuck the top of bottle in my mouth, tipping it until the crisp, sparkling, tangy champagne hit my lips. I chugged a couple of sips until my eyes burned and I fought a cough.
The door next to me flung open. Sunlight blinded me as I stuck my head out to glance around.
“Put your head back inside.” With her words muffled, Lisa pointed at me while she held her bouquet clenched in her teeth.
“Helen?” Mom screamed from across the parking lot as she exited the doors with all the other guests. Her shouted volume caught the attention of everyone around her and they all turned toward me.
“Helen, what’s going on? Where are you going?”
“I promise she’ll call you in just a bit, Susanne.” Lisa’s voice bellowed across the parking lot as she climbed in beside me and shut the door. “Well, that certainly couldn’t have gone worse. People kept trying to stop and ask me questions as I tried to pack up your bag. Thanks a lot for leaving everything strewn all over the room, by the way.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly plan on leaving the church like this.”
“I know, I’m sorry. Ben’s taken care of everything. Let’s just get you to our house and out of that dress.” She eyed the champagne bottle. “Care to pour me a glass?”
I lifted the bottle to my lips, chugged a few more gulps, and then shoved the bottle toward her, holding it in my outstretched hand.
“Why bother with a glass?”